KYIV: The United States and NATO said on Wednesday that they had still seen no sign of a pullback of Russian troops from near Ukraine, even as Moscow said it was continuing a partial military withdrawal and Ukraine sought to project national unity in the face of the threat.
Secretary of state Antony Blinken said the United States had seen no evidence of a significant Russian military withdrawal from Ukraine’s borders, a day after President Vladimir Putin said that Russia had decided to “partially” pull back its forces.
“Unfortunately there’s a difference between what Russia says and what it does,” Blinken said in an interview with ABC News. “And what we’re seeing is no meaningful pullback. On the contrary, we continue to see forces — especially forces that would be in the vanguard of any renewed aggression against Ukraine — continuing to be at the border, to mass at the border.”
The NATO secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, echoed the US assessment, saying that Russia remains capable “of a full-fledged invasion of Ukraine without any warning time.”
Stoltenberg said that in the past Russia has moved troops while leaving weaponry in place.
“So what we need to see is a real withdrawal of forces, which is lasting and real, and not that they move troops around,” he said. “But again, we are monitoring, we really hope that they will withdraw forces, and that will be the best contribution to a political solution. And we believe there’s some reason for cautious optimism because they have stated so clearly, at least stated, that they’re ready for a diplomatic solution.”
The Kremlin spokesman, Dmitri Peskov, dismissed NATO’s assessment on troop levels, saying that the alliance had not made “a sober evaluation” of the situation.
Russia’s defence ministry announced more troop withdrawals, saying that a train loaded with Russian tanks, armored vehicles, and howitzers left Crimea and would return to their bases after concluding military exercises. A video from the ministry showed a train loaded with armored vehicles crossing into mainland Russia from Crimea, traveling across a vast bridge built to link Crimea and Russia after it annexed the peninsula from Ukraine in 2014.
Ruslan Leviev, a researcher who follows Russian troop movements, said that the military equipment that left Crimea could be redeployed at bases near Ukraine’s east.
As President Joe Biden and Putin continued to engage in a perilous pas de deux over the fate of Ukraine, the nation at the heart of the crisis marked a new national holiday on Wednesday: Unity Day.
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine announced the holiday — an effort to bolster public resolve “in the face of growing hybrid threats, information and propaganda, moral and psychological pressure” — in response to US intelligence assessments over the weekend that suggested that a Russian invasion could begin before dawn on Wednesday.
On Tuesday, Biden said that US analysts say that more than 150,000 Russian troops near the Ukrainian border “remain very much in a threatening position.”
But he emphasised that the United States would continue to pursue “a diplomatic resolution,” building on two days of signs from both Washington and Moscow that the focus was shifting, at least for the moment, from military posturing to diplomatic wrangling.
At the center of those discussions is the suggestion that Ukraine might drop its ambition to join the NATO alliance — a move that would help fulfill one of Putin’s key demands. It is a politically charged topic in Ukraine but Zelenskyy has acknowledged it is being discussed.
“It seems to me that no one is hiding it anymore,” he said this week.
In a speech in the European Parliament, Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, said that because of Russian policies the citizens of Ukraine were keeping “emergency bags by their front doors, with basic clothes and important documents.”
“Others have stockpiled food cans to prepare for the worst. Some have even set up shelters in their basements,” she said. “These are not stories from the 1940s. This is Europe in 2022.”
She noted that Russia sent conflicting signals on Tuesday, announcing troop pullbacks even as the country’s legislative body, the Duma, asked Putin to formally recognize two separatist regions of eastern Ukraine as independent republics, possibly paving the way for Russia to send in more troops there.
Still, she said, there was cause for guarded optimism. “Diplomacy has not yet spoken its last words,” she said.


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